How the left went wrong

In early 2003, the largest co-ordinated protests in history took place against the Iraq war. This, a

No one who looked at the liberal left from the outside could pretend that it provided anything other than token opposition to the "insurgents" from the Ba'ath Party and al-Qaeda. The British Liberal Democrats, the Continental social-democratic parties, the African National Congress and virtually every leftish newspaper and journal on the planet were unable to accept that the struggles of Arabs and Kurds had anything to do with them. Mainstream Muslim organisations were as indifferent to the murder of Muslims by Muslims in Iraq as they were to those in Darfur. For most world opinion, Tony Blair's hopes of "giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty" counted for nothing. The worst of the lot were the organisers of the UK anti-war demonstrations who turned out to be not so much against war, but on the wrong side.

Their leader, George Galloway, was a bombastic Scottish Labour MP who combined blood-curdling rhetoric with a whining sentimentality, like many a thug before him. In the Nineties, his political career appeared to be dead. Contrary to popular prejudice, successful politicians don't always love the sound of their own voice. The ones who get on learn to hold their tongue and speak for a purpose. Galloway was too fond of grandstanding to make it in the best of times for the left. When new Labour took charge, many Scottish bruisers from the old left found preferment under Blair, who, like all prime ministers, needed his enforcers. But Galloway missed the boat, and perhaps never wanted to board it. He seemed an irrelevant backbencher who could hope only for the occasional appearance on talk radio, but he proved that a minor politician from democratic Britain could build an alternative career in Arab dictatorships. Their state-controlled media quoted approved foreigners at length, giving Galloway the attention he could not get at home. The unending tyranny of totalitarian Iraq and the ephemeral glitz of Celebrity Big Brother seem as far apart as it is possible to be. But the anti-war movement should not have been surprised that Galloway ended up as an exhibit on a TV freak show. The celebrity and the totalitarian share a desire to have their face in every news paper and on every television screen. Both are what the playwright Heathcote Williams called "psychic imperialists", who want to col onise the minds of millions.

In 1994, long before he crawled around the Big Brother house, Galloway made his first steps towards stardom when Iraqi TV showed him bending the knee before Saddam Hussein. He gave the most emphatic demonstration of the switch on the left when he flew to Baghdad in the aftermath of the first war against Saddam and declared: "I thought the president would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the war, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam . . . Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem." If you listened to what Galloway said, you noticed a difference from what had gone before. With the brief exception of the two years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, 20th-century fellow-travellers had to choose between communism and fascism, but in the 21st century you could refuse to be "judgemental" about any system as long as it was anti-democratic.

Galloway saluted the fascistic perpetrator of racial extermination campaigns, but he was just as keen on communism. He lamented "the disappearance of the Soviet Union", and said it was "the biggest catastrophe of my life". When asked about his admiration for Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba, he said, "I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator." When Saddam was gone, Galloway went to Ba'athist Syria, even though it was the sworn enemy of Ba'athist Iraq, and applauded it as "the last castle of the Arab dignity and the Arab rights". Saddam had launched an unprovoked war against Iran, but when Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy in Lebanon, began a war with Israel, a finger-jabbing Galloway bellowed to a rally in London, "Hezbollah has never been a terrorist organisation. I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance." Stalinism, Castroism, Islamism, Ba'athism, the old distinctions no longer held. Any ism would do as an alternative to democracy.

Such was the leader of the Stop the War Coalition, a man offered columns by the Guardian, the parish magazine of the "liberal" English middle class, and buttered up with oily profiles in the New York Times, the parish magazine of the "liberal" American middle class. A respectable movement of the right or the left would have refused to have anything to do with him, but the fever George W Bush provoked and the waning power of liberal principles meant that not one heckler raised a voice in protest when he addressed the London marchers who were so eager to chant "Not in my name".

A theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining. Not only do the thoughts of apparently inconsequential figures - Michel Aflaq, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Sayyid Qutb - take off, but the extreme parties magnify trends in wider society. The Socialist Workers Party, Galloway's backer and the real force behind the Stop the War Coalition, distinguished itself by taking the opportunism and control-freakery of conventional politics and pushing them further than any democratic party would dare, when it ordered its pliant members into an alliance with the Islamic right in which not one of the old taboos held.

Take fascist conspiracy theory. Globalise Resistance, an anti-capitalist group dominated by the SWP, first proposed a global day of protest against the war at the "Cairo Conference" of anti-war activists. The delegates sounded as if tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany had inspired them when they declared that the 2003 war against Iraq was the result of a "Zionist plan, which targets the establishment of the greater State of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates".

Rich script

Making friends with your enemy's enemy is a familiar tactic, but it is not as uncomplicated as it seems. More often than not, you have to betray your old friends when you conclude your pact. The organisers of the anti-war demonstrations and their friends treated Iraqi left-wingers like criminals because they refused to take up arms against the Americans as the script of the rich world's left said they must.

Instead of supporting the far right, the uppity natives said they wanted to escape from al-Qaeda and the Ba'ath and to participate in free elections. Iraqi trade unionists in particular were met with the most implacable hatred. At the 2004 European Social Forum speaker after speaker supported the "resistance". No one booed when one said that those who questioned the motives of the suicide bombers who were murdering daily (mainly Muslim) civilians were guilty of "anti-Islamic racism". They dismissed the leaders of the Iraqi left as "quislings", even when they were men such as Hadi Saleh. The left would once have hailed him a hero for risking his life for the welfare of humanity. Saleh was a printer and trade union organiser whom the Ba'athists arrested as soon as they came to power in 1968. He sat on death row for five years. They let him go, and he fled to Sweden with his wife. Like many in the Iraqi Communist Party, he lost his faith in Moscow after it cut deals with Saddam and started a long journey towards constitutional politics. He had to live with a constant fear of assassination. Saleh opposed the war of 2003, but returned home after it was over. From next to nothing he and his comrades built a mass movement in the face of the indifference or hostility of the Americans, who were so lost in conservative dogma they didn't grasp that free societies and free trade unions go together. They came for him, of course. The professional nature of the torture wounds on his body suggested that "they" were Ba'athist secret policemen rather than Bin Ladenists. When he was dead, they took his union records to give them the names of more people to kill.

I've never felt as ashamed of my trade of liberal journalism as I did at the time of his murder. The BBC boasts that it questions without fear or favour. But when you hire upper-middle-class arts graduates, pay them well and allow them to work, eat and sleep together in west London, there's bound to be a "Collective Group Think". In Iraq's case, it did not come out in the hard questions they asked the other side, but in the soft questions they asked their own side. For years, the BBC's attack-dog presenters couldn't manage to give one opponent of the war a tough interview. Not even Galloway. My colleagues were rich men and women by British standards, let alone world standards. They kept silent so they could maintain the illusion that the family of the "left" was flawless. No one would have tortured them if they had spoken out. No one would have beaten their genitals, broken their bones, strangled them with an electric flex and then stolen their address book so that they could do the same to their friends. The worst they would have got were contemptuous looks at dinner parties, badges of honour at the time.

When I asked my colleagues why the fact that an anti-war movement being led by apologists for Saddam was not a story, when a Countryside Alliance led by neo-Nazis would have been, they said, "Well, the people who went on their demonstrations didn't agree with Galloway and the SWP. They followed Robin Cook, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and the Liberal Democrats." This was true up to a point. "And anyway," they continued, "it didn't matter" - an answer which showed how little they understood the world around them.

The convergence of far-left and far-right ideas is not the only reason for taking a good look at the organisers of the anti-war marches. Because they said they were on the left, they had to face an argument that was to confront men and women with status, in the BBC, liberal media, NGOs, Liberal Democrats and the centre-left governments of Europe, South America and South Africa. All right, it ran, you say the war against Iraq was illegal, and you wish it had never happened; you're appalled by the casualties and sickened by Bush. That's fine, and you have a point, but now that far-right psychopaths are ravaging the country, are you going to stand up for your social-democratic principles and support the victims or does anything go for you, too?

"What's Left? How liberals lost their way" is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99). Next week, John Kampfner reviews Nick Cohen's book

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror